So last night we went to see WILLIE NELSON at Chastain in Atlanta (outdoors, perfect weather, amazingly good acoustics).
The opening performer—who was not listed anywhere and a surprise to me—was Jamey Johnson. He has to be the very best of the new country performers. He has that manly traditional kind of country voice, and he can really sing. He writes his own songs without the usual Nashville expert help, and they also are pretty traditional in form. He was backed by a fantastic country-rock band. My favorite title: “The High Cost of Livin’ Ain’t Nothing Like the Cost of Livin’ High.”
Johnson also did a very pure version of A LONG BLACK VEIL. But the reason I’m writing: His most memorable performance was the BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA version of AMAZING GRACE, which is to the tune of THE HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN. That change slows the song down, mutes its longing, and so makes the lyric more serious and almost matter-of-fact. The words fit the new tune perfectly. You can Google the BLIND BOYS’ version. But Johnson’s more country-traditional approach is, as they say, even more haunting.
It turns out there were a lot of Johnson fans in the sold-out crowd. The country guys just below us knew every word to every song. It’s not often that the opening act gets a sustained standing ovation and calls for more.
But, of course, Willie is no danger of being overshadowed by anyone.
His show—which was somewhere near two hours without a break—was touching because it was so minimalist. The only guitar sound came from him, and you wouldn’t have wanted more. He indulged the audience with hit after hit and sing-along after sing-along.
The highpoint of the evening was his standard Gospel trilogy—I’LL FLY AWAY, I SAW THE LIGHT, and AMAZING GRACE. The whole crowd was standing and everyone knew all the words.
Willie’s version of AMAZING GRACE is more standard and so more joyful and exhuberent. Joining him on stage—amazingly—were Jimmy and Rosalynne Carter. So don’t get all ideological about the ex-president. He is a sincere Christian of some sort, and it was just great to see those two very old guys giving it their all together. Jim is not particularly admired by any country crowd in Georgia, but he still got a huge ovation. Maybe he really was once lost but now is found.
One reason you should all move SOUTH is to see shows like this, with Amazing Grace showing up in two equally wonderful ways.
Willie Nelson, of course, is not listed in the studies about what white people like. The audience, of course, was 98% white in the city in America with the highest percentage of prosperous and visible blacks.
All kinds of white people were there, and so not mainly the sophisticated and trendy people to whom the studies refer. All kinds of white people also means all ages—from senior citizens who wish they were young to teenagers dressed all country for the occasion.